At Positive Pet Training we are completely force free with our training methods, meaning that we don’t use anything that might hurt or scare dogs during training. So as part of our training we do use lots of rewards for positive reinforcement- this can be toys, fuss and verbal praise but we also use lots of treats as food rewards too!
(We also use negative punishment in our training which means we remove something nice to stop the dog from doing something we don’t want them to – this might sound horrible but the best example is ignoring a dog when they jump up at you. You take away attention and so they stop bothering to do it. This is much nicer and more effective for you and your dog than you shouting at them or accidentally reinforcing this behaviour by fussing them when they jump up. If you want to understand more about this kind of learning, known as Operant Conditioning, then come along to one of our introductory seminars!)
As a vet, when people start talking about what treats they give their pets, alarm bells might start ringing as unfortunately we see so many pets everyday that are dangerously overweight. I’ve heard all sorts of things being used as treats; from cups of tea to chocolate (yes it’s poisonous to dogs!) to prime steak! We love to spoil our pets and treats are invaluable in training but we need to ensure that any treats we are using are safe and that we keep them at an ideal weight for their size. Our greedy Labrador Barnaby loves his food and we use treats with him all the time including stuffed Kongs daily but he’s still a nice lean 27kg! So using treats and keeping pets slim can definitely be done!
Size of Treats
One of the big mistakes pet guardians make is the size of the treat. Barnaby LOVES cheese but if I gave him a whole chunk of cheese or a tiny piece he would react the same way – it’s all CHEESE!! Dogs are like young children, who would much prefer 10 x 1p sweets compared to 1 x 10p sweet, so we can make the same volume of treats last a lot longer by making them much smaller. Aim for at least eight pieces of treat to fit on your little finger nail (yes – really tiny!).
You can make your own ready made smaller treats such as Pyramid Pan Treats!
The time it takes to eat the food is often linked to the size or the difficulty of the treats too so if you want to make food last longer instead of feeding in a bowl you can feed from puzzle feeders which are great mental stimulation or by scattering the food on the floor/in the garden – this is a great way to encourage a dog to use their nose. Using food in Kong toys can be a great long lasting treat for your dog too. Encouraging dogs to use their noses and to chew are also great ways to manage arousal throughout the day and can help them to settle.
Value of Treats
The value of treats is another thing we can vary. This is not how much it cost you to buy but how much your dog enjoys it. You probably know one or two treats that your dog really loves. Cheese and fish are Barnaby’s top picks whereas Cornelius loves a bit of red meat! And others which your dog enjoys but doesn’t show quite the same enthusiasm for. (All other food falls into this category for our greedy Boys). Try not to use the top dollar treats every day but instead save them for the really hard work. E.g. a recall on the walk where you really want to reward your dog.
For the easier things e.g. practicing a “sit” at home use lower value treats. (With maybe the odd higher value one mixed in to keep them guessing.) If you were paid the same for doing the washing up at home as you are a full day’s work, it would start to seem pointless going to work. In the same respect if your dog knows they can get access to chicken or cheese just for doing an easy sit it won’t have the same effect of rewarding them for rushing over to you when recalling on a walk. By varying the value, it can also be easier to manage their daily intake. As a lot of the low value rewards we use are normal dog food kibble from our boy’s daily rations. We feed them less in their meals and keep some back to use throughout the day with them.
Treats in Training
Lots of people also struggle with the ethos behind using treats and feel like they are “bribing” their dogs. Apart from the fact that dogs don’t have the cognitive ability to understand bribery. Bribery is defined as paying someone to do something dishonest. Asking your dog to come back to you or to sit is not exactly dishonest work! But it is still work. You are trying to get your dog to do something for you instead of something that might be more worth while for your dog. i.e. running around on the field is lots more fun than coming back to you. So you need to make it worth while.
And not only to begin with. Treats should continue, albeit on a schedule of reinforcement (look out for our future post on this!) for the lifetime of your dog. If your boss paid you to go to work until you got good at it and then stopped paying you because “you should know how to do it now and not need encouragement” I’m not sure many of you would still get up and go to work!
All in all this is a post to say as a dog trainer and dog guardian I spend a large amount of my time chopping up cheese in to teeny tiny pieces!